With 64-year-old Gary Scimeca reclined on a cushioned swivel chair, occasionally glancing at the Jack Nicholson movie on TV, and his grown son Tyler sitting over by the toaster oven and microwave, it felt as more like a family kitchen than a bike shop.
Probably because it was the family bike shop — Manasquan Bicycle Center —where the Simeca family has been selling and fixing bikes for the past 48 years. And that’s only as long as the business has been located in Manasquan, a borough of about 6,000 year-round residents at the southern end of the Monmouth County shore.
Before moving to Manasquan, the family bike business was in Bayonne, where the shop on Broadway was run by Gary’s dad, Frank Scimeca. Before then, it was in North Bergen, where it had relocated after being founded in Harlem in 1926, by Gary’s grandfather — Tyler’s great-grandfather — Michael Scimeca, a young immigrant from Sicily.
“Off the boat,” as Gary put it.
So, the 93-year-old family bicycle business is in Tyler’s blood.
“Since he was a baby, he was crawling around, walking around the shop,” Gary said of his son, now 26. “People would ask, ‘How’d he become such a good mechanic?’ I said, ‘Because he was born here.’ He was putting pedals on for me — I mean, obviously, his work was checked — but he was always doing something.”
What his son will be doing next is running things entirely on his own. With his dad already slowing down and ready to retire to a life of bowling and golf, Tyler will be the fourth-generation Scimeca to steer the family business. With his son’s fresh blood and first-hand knowledge of the younger peddling public, Gary said Tyler had already shifted the businesses into a higher gear, boosting sales to more than 1,000 bikes a year for the first time.
But Tyler and the family’s Main Street bike shop are facing their own set of challenges heading into this year’s holiday season, when many a child’s dream is to wake up to a new bike, while parents try to make that dream come true within their budget.
Like many brick and mortar stores, those challenges include competing with online retailers who can charge less because they don’t have the same level of overhead.
“They’ll go on Amazon right in front of me and say, ‘No, I’ve got to go somewhere else for the bike,’” Tyler said, exasperated. “I had a guy who went somewhere else because he didn’t want to spend $1 more for brake shoes (pads), and he was willing to wait two days.”
Even apart from the Amazons and Ebays, the big box stores that seem to line both sides of every Jersey barrier in the Garden State exploit their sheer volume to undersell neighborhood outlets. It’s not uncommon, Tyler said, for those same online shoppers to come back to his business to assemble or tweak a bike that had arrived or was taken home in a box.
“You don’t want to be rude to the people, you don’t want to say, ‘Well yeah, you spent $89.99 on a bike, but you’re going to have to spend another forty bucks to put it together,” said Tyler. “Another thing we like to tell customers is, we don’t build the likes in aisle 13.”
One thing box stores an Amazon don’t do is build face-to-face relationships with customers who know they can rely on the store for one-day repairs.
Brian Tompkin, a 48-year-old Manasquan resident, had just dropped off his bike to have the wheels “trued,” or straightened, to make them roll more smoothly, by adjusting the tension on the spokes. Tompkin, who rides for fun and exercise, sometimes with his wife, had been in before, and was happy with the work.
“That’s why I came back,” he said.
Reliability and trust are what have brought Lolo Vazquez back to the shop for routine maintenance since he bought his bike there two years ago. Vazquez, 40, a restaurant worker and member of Manasquan’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community, uses the bike as his primary mode of transportation. He had just picked it up with a new set of tires.
“Son buena gente,” he said in Spanish. “They’re good people.”
Apart from their ongoing battle with box stores and e-commerce, this holiday season presents a new challenge for the Scimecas in the form of import tariffs on goods made in China imposed under the escalating trade dispute with the United States. Tyler said tariffs hiked in four increments between Nov. 1, 2018, and Sept. 1, have steadily driven up the price of the California-designed, China-made Electra beach cruisers that are his shop’s biggest seller.
“They were $249, but now they’re $329,” he said of the pre- and post-tariff prices.
And then there’s competition from other local shops, which include Swamp Ghost Frame Works on Second Avenue in Manasquan, still one of only a very few shops in the state that repair lighter but more fracture-prone carbon frames; and Brielle Cyclery on Union Avenue in that neighboring borough, which advertises a wide variety of entry-level to top-of-the-line mountain and road bikes.
Bike technology, materials and the types of bikes and bike riding have undergone countless changes over the decades: from single-speed, fixed-gear bikes to multiple gears, and back to the “fixies” popular among bike messengers and other hipsters; from steel tubing to aluminum to carbon to titanium; from road racing to mountain biking to BMX to gravel biking to bikepacking; and on and on and on; the basic form and function of the bicycle — two wheels and a pedal-powered drive train — have remained essentially the same since the Scimica family got into the business 93 years ago. And the family has stayed in the business for nearly a century by keeping its focus on basic bikes and basic repairs.
For example, the most common type of bike carried and sold by the Manasquan shop are so-called beach cruisers, popular along the Jersey Shore and other coastal areas, where many people ride to and from the beach, a big plus as parking gets harder and harder to find, every year, everywhere. The upright seating position on a beach cruiser is not only comfortable, but also better for riding with just one hand on the handlebar, leaving the other free to carry towels, a beach bag, or even a surfboard.
“The biggest challenge is educating people,” Tyler said during a casual ride with a reporter along a paved path parallel to the beach, with the waves breaking on a blustery afternoon. “Letting people know what they need to buy, how they need to buy it, and the equipment that comes with it. The difference between big box and small shops. Being able to deal with the warranties, the issues, and work directly with the (bike) companies instead of having to go through these large corporations to get things done.”
“The online business does hurt,” he added, peddling his own black Electra. “People don’t realize that bikes come in boxes. They don’t realize they don’t know how to build a bike. Then you bring it to me, and the price jumps to exactly what it would be if you bought it right out of my store. Service is it.”
Steve Strunsky may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.
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